Comets are relics of an era that has long since passed. They formed in the same accretion disk that gave birth to our Earth, Sun and the rest of the solar system but managed to avoid being subsumed into a larger celestial body. This, along with the amazing show they put on whenever they come close to the Sun, makes them objects of particular interest to star gazers and scientists alike. However few craft have studied them as their highly elliptical orbits make it incredibly difficult to do anything more than a flyby. That is, of course, unless you’re the ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft which just made history by deploying its Philae lander to the surface of the Churyumov–Gerasimenko 67P comet.
Many would have heard about the Rosetta craft recently as it was the first craft to ever enter an orbit around a comet which was achieved back in August. However few would know that it’s been on that journey for over 10 years as the Rosetta craft was launched in March of 2004. Since then it’s been slowly making it’s way to rendezvous with 67P, using multiple gravity assists to give it the velocity it needed to match the comet’s speed. Once it arrived at the comet it began imaging its surface in incredible detail, searching for a landing site for it’s attached Philae lander. In the early hours of this morning the Philae lander detacted from its parent craft and began its descent down to the surface and shortly after we received confirmation that it had touched down successfully.
It’s not all good news unfortunately as whilst the telemetry indicates that the lander did make it to the surface the anchoring harpoons that are on it’s feet did not fire. This causes two problems, the first (and most troubling) of these is that the lander is not securely fixed to the comet’s surface. In the minuscule gravity of the comet the lander weighs about 1 gram, meaning any out gassing from the comet could flip the craft over, or worse, send it tumbling out into space. Additionally those harpoons also contained instruments for measuring surface density, a lesser issue but still a blow to the project all the same. The ESA is currently investigating the reasons behind this and might refire them to ensure that the lander doesn’t get blow away.
Firing the harpoons again is risky but the people behind the Rosetta program have never been one to shy away from potentially mission ending decisions. Back in 2007 they scheduled an incredibly low altitude pass by Mars, a mere 250KM above its surface, in order to correct its trajectory to be closer to 67P. The trouble with this though was Rosetta couldn’t use its solar panels during this manoeuvre due to it being in the shadow of Mars, forcing it to power down for the duration. The batteries on the craft were not designed with this purpose in mind however and so this trajectory correction was dubbed The Billion Euro Gamble which, thankfully, paid off.
Rosetta and Philae both carry with them a host of tools designed to analyse the make up of the 67P comet including spectrometers, thermal imagers and radio/microwave based devices. The original spacecraft design was far more ambitious, including such things a sample return mission ala Hayabusa, however whilst it might not be as lofty a mission as it once was it’s still highly capable of giving us a detailed picture of what makes up this comet. This will then give us incredible insight into the early stages of our solar system and how it evolved into what it is today.
Hopefully the harpoon issues will get sorted out in short order and the Philae lander can continue its work without the possibility of it getting blown out into the depths of space. Rosetta’s mission is slated to continue through to the end of next year, just after 67P buzzes passed us on its journey back out to the edges of our solar system. Like all good space missions there’s potential for it to go even longer and here’s hoping that Rosetta and Philae will continue to deliver long past their used by date.
Up until recently most of my data at home hadn’t been living in the safest environment. You see like many people I kept all my data on single hard drives, their only real protection being that most of them spent their lives unplugged, sitting next to my hard drive docking bay. Of course tragedy struck one day when my playful feline companion decided that the power cord for one of the portable hard drives looked like something to play with and promptly pulled it onto the floor. Luckily nothing of real importance was on there (apart from my music collection that had some of the oldest files I had ever managed to keep) but it did get me thinking about making my data a little more secure.
The easiest way to provide at least some level of protection was to get my data onto a RAID set so that at least a single disk failure wouldn’t take out my data again. I figured that if I put one large RAID in my media box and a second in my main PC (which I was planning to do anyway) then I could keep copies of the data on each of them, as RAID on its own is not a backup solution. A couple thousand dollars and a weekend later I was in possession of a new main PC and all the fixings of a new RAID set on my media PC ready to hold my data. Everything was looking pretty rosy for a while, but then the problems started.
Now the media PC that I had built was something of a beast, sporting enough RAM and a good enough graphics card to be able to play most recent games at high settings. Soon after I had completed building it I was going to a LAN with a bunch of mates of mine, one of which who was travelling from Melbourne and wasn’t able to bring his PC with him. Too easy I thought, he can just use this new awesome beast of a box to play games with us and everything shall be good. In all honesty it was until I saw him reboot it once and the RAID controller flashed up a warning about the RAID being critical, which sent chills down my spine.
Looking at the RAID UI in Windows I found that yes indeed one of the disks had dropped out of the RAID set, but there didn’t seem to be anything wrong with it. Confused I started the rebuild on the RAID set and it managed to complete successfully after a few hours, leaving me to think that I might have bumped a cable or something to trigger the “failure”. When I got it home however the problem kept recurring, but it was random and never seemed to follow a distinct pattern, except for it being the same disk every time. Eventually however it stabilized and so I figured that it was just a transient problem and left it at that.
Unfortunately for me it happened again last night, but it wasn’t the same disk this time. Figuring it was a bung RAID controller I was preparing to siphon my data off it in order to rebuild it as a software RAID when my wife asked me if I had actually tried Googling around to see if others had had the same issue. I had done so in the past but I hadn’t been very thorough with it so I decided that it was probably worth the effort, especially if it could save me another 4 hours of babying the copy process. What I found has made me deeply frustrated, not just with certain companies but also myself for not researching this properly.
The drives I bought all those months ago where Seagate ST2000DL003 2TB Green drives which are cheap, low power drives that seemed perfect for a large amount of RAID storage. However there’s a slight problem with these kinds of drives when they’re put into a RAID set. You see the hard drives have error correction built into them but thanks to their “green” rating this process can be quite slow, on the order of 10 seconds to minutes if the drive is under heavy load. RAID controllers are programmed to mark disks as failed if they stop responding after a certain period of time, usually a couple seconds or so. That means should a drive start correcting itself and not respond quick enough to the RAID controller it will mark the disk as failed and remove it, putting the array into a critical state.
Seeing the possibility for this to cause issues for everyone hard drive manufacturers have developed a protocol called Time-Limited Error Recovery (or Error Recovery Correction for Seagate). TLER limits the amount of time the hard drive will spend attempting to recover from an error, so if it can’t be dealt with within that time frame it’ll then hand it off to the RAID controller, leaving the disk in the RAID and allowing it to recover. For the drives I had bought this setting is set to off as default and a quick Google has shown that any attempts to change it are futile. Most other brands are able to change this particular value but for these particular Seagate drives they are unfortunately locked in this state.
So where does this leave me? Well apart from hoping that Seagate releases a firmware update that allows me to change that particular value I’m up the proverbial creek without a paddle. Replacing these drives with similar drives from another manufacturer will set me back another $400 and a weekend’s worth of work so it’s not something I’m going to do immediately. I’m going to pester Seagate and hope that they’ll release a fix for this because other than that one issue they’ve been fantastic drives and I’d hate to have to get rid of them because of it. Hopefully they’re responsive about it but judging by what people are saying on the Seagate forums I shouldn’t hold my breath, but it’s all I’ve got right now.
Technological innovations, you know those things that are supposed to make our lives easier, usually end up becoming the bane of our existence not too long after they’ve lost their novelty. I can’t tell you how many times people have said that they’ve lost control of their email inbox or how they’re constantly distracted by people trying to contact them over the phone, damning the technology for allowing people to interrupt whatever the heck it was they were doing. What amuses me though is I use many of the same technologies that they do yet I don’t feel the same level of pressure that they do, leading me to wonder what the heck they’re complaining about.
Now I’m not saying that email, IM, Twitter et. al. are not distracting, indeed our techno-centric culture is increasingly skewed towards being a distracted one by a veritable tsunami communications tools. I myself struggled with Twitter not too long ago when I attempted to use it the “proper” way over a weekend, seeing my productivity hit the floor as I struggled to strike a balance between my level of engagement and the amount of work I got done. However I soon realised that using said service in the proper way meant that I just ended up as distracted as everyone else, with almost 0 benefit to me other than the small bit of self satisfaction that I was totally doing this social media thing right for a change.
In essence I feel that the reason people get so distracted by these tools is that they feel obligated to respond to them immediately, rather than at a time which suits them best. Thus the tool which is meant to help your productivity becomes a burden, interrupting you at the worst possible time and breaking you out of the flow of the work you were in. If you find yourself in this position you need to set up strict rules for interacting with that particular technology that suit you rather than what suits everyone else. How you go about this is left as an exercise for the reader, but the most effective tool (I’ve found, at least) is to only check your email/Twitter/whatever at certain times during the day and ignoring it at all other times.
The retort I usually get for advocating this kind of stance is “What if something important happens in the interim?”. Thinking really hard about it I can’t think of anything really important that’s come to me via the medium of email, IM, Twitter that didn’t first reach me through some more direct means (like my phone). If you’re relying on these distinctly one way, no way to verify if the person has actually received your message platforms then the message you’re sending can’t really be all that important and can wait a few hours before being responded to. If it can’t then use some more direct means of communicating otherwise you’re just forcing people into the same technological hell that you yourself feel trapped in, continuing the vicious cycle that just doesn’t need to exist.
However sometimes people are just looking for a scapegoat for their situation and it’s far easier to blame a faceless technology than it is to look internally and work out why they’re so distracted. I can kind of sort of understand people getting caught up with communications clients, especially when it’s part of your job, but when you think something like RSS is too distracting (you know, where you choose to subscribe to a site because you’re interested in it) then the problem isn’t the technology it’s your lack of ability to recognize that you’re wasting time. I get literally hundreds of items in my RSS reader every day but do I read them all? Heck no, at most I’ll skim the titles and if I recognize a story I’ve already read then I won’t go back and read it again.
Just seems like common sense to me.
It’s also not helped by the fact that many of us now carry our distractions with us. My phone has all the distraction capability of a modern PC and if it weren’t for my strict rules about only checking things at certain times I’m sure I’d be in the same distraction hell that everyone else is. Of course even though the platform may be different the same rules apply, it’s the feeling of obligation that drives us to distraction when realistically the obligation doesn’t exist, and we’re just slotting into a social norm that ends up wrecking havoc.
Thus all I’m advocating is taking back control of the technology rather than letting it control us. All of these distractions are tools to be used to our advantage and the second they stop being helpful we need to step back and question our use of them to see if we should change the way we use them. Otherwise we just end up being misused by the tools we wish to use and end up blaming them for the problems we in fact caused ourselves.
I’ve often found that trying that sticking with a problem from start to finish is usually the least efficient way of getting it completed. Quite often if I take a 1 hour break whilst I’m in the thick of trying to solve something I’ll usually figure the answer out before I return, being able to move onto the next bit of work in far less time than if I had tried to struggle my way through. I think this is the main reason why the lawn gets mowed routinely during he summer months, that 30 mins~1 hour of basically mindless work let’s my subconscious tackle the problem in ways that I can’t do normally.
The most recent example I can think of was the problem of producing realistic gravity in the game I’m developing with a good friend of mine. I’ve had the basic gravity mechanics working for ages and even managed to get a planet into a near-circular orbit around a star. Unfortunately from there finding other stable orbits for varying distances and masses proved to be quite troublesome as there didn’t seem to be any kind of simple relationship that I could derive that would produce the same circular orbits as I had achieved after tinkering around with initial forces for a couple hours.
It’s been a real pearler of a problem too as whilst I’ve been able to make steady progress despite this (my one little test planet is enough to get most things working) I still couldn’t figure out how to give a planet a stable orbit based on its mass and initial distance from the sun. I tried many different things, from trying to map an equation based on a couple stable orbits to pushing the planet around so it would stay on course (which hilariously flung planets out of sight). Then late one night just before I was about to fall asleep it hit me: I could use the force that was being applied to the planet by the sun as the magnitude for the initial force. I then just have to work out the components along the desired orbital trajectory (breaking out some good old fashion trigonometry) and I should be on my way. I haven’t tested this yet, but it’s the only idea I’ve had that hasn’t involved fussing around with variables for hours on end.
It’s that same process that jolts you awake in the middle of the night with that name that you couldn’t remember or that fact you were trying to come up with at a crucial time. I find it really intriguing as I obviously have the ability to solve these kinds of problems somewhere in my head however I just can’t have it on tap, I’ve just got to let my brain do its thing whilst I wait around for the solution.
I’ve been developing computer programs on and off for a good 7 years and in that time I’ve come across my share of challenges. The last year or so has been probably the most challenging of my entire development career as I’ve struggled to come to grips with the Internet’s way of doing things and how to enable disparate systems to talk to each other. Along the way I’ve often hit various problems that on the surface appear to be next to impossible to do or I come to a point where a new requirement makes an old solution no longer viable. Time has shown however that whilst I might not be able to find an applicable solution through hours of intense Googling or RTFM there are always clues that lead to an eventual solution. I’ve found though that such solutions have to be necessary parts of the larger solution otherwise I’ll just simply ignore them.
Take for instance my past weekend’s work gone by with Lobaco. Things had been going well, the last week’s work had seen me enable user sign ups in the iPhone application and had the beginnings of an enhanced post screen that allowed users to post pictures along with their posts. Initial testing of the features seemed to work well and I started testing the build on my iPhone. Quickly however I discovered that both the new features I had put in struggled to upload images to my web server, crashing whenever a picture was over 800 by 600 in size. Since my web client seemed to be able to handle this without an issue I wondered what the problem would be, so I started digging deeper.
The image uploading I had designed and successfully used up until this point was now untenable as the iPhone client simply refused to play nice with ~300KB strings. I set about trying to find a solution to my problem hoping to find a quick solution to my problem. Whilst I didn’t find a good drag and drop solution I did come across this post which detailed a way in which to program a Windows web service that could receive arbitrary data. Implementing their solution as it is detailed there still didn’t actually work as advertised but after wrangling the code and over coming the inbuilt message size limits in WCF I was successfully able to upload images without having to muck around with enormous strings. This of course did mean changing a great deal of how the API and clients worked but in the end it was worth it for something that solved so many problems.
The thing is before I went on this whole adventure had you asked me if such a thing was possible I would’ve probably told you no, at least not within the whole WCF world. In fact much of my early research into this problem was centred around possibly implementing a small PHP script to accomplish the same thing (as there are numerous examples of that already), however the lack of integration with my all Microsoft solution means I’d be left with a standalone piece of code that I wouldn’t have much interest in improving or maintaining. By the simple virtue that I had to come up with a solution to this problem meant I tried my darnedest to find it, and lo I ended up creating something I couldn’t find anywhere else.
It’s like that old saying that necessity is the mother of all invention and that’s true for both this problem and Lobaco as an idea in itself. Indeed many of the current great Internet giants and start ups were founded on the idea of solving a problem that the founders themselves were experiencing and felt that things could be better. I guess I just find it fascinating how granular a saying like that can be, with necessity driving me to invent solutions at all levels. It goes to show that embarking into the unknown is a great learning experience and there’s really no substitute for diving in head first and trying your hardest to solve an as of yet unsolvable problem.
I have to admit whilst I admired the spectacle of New York I didn’t much care for the fast paced city. The consent hard sell from street merchants, the inattentive people on the streets that would make no attempt to give way to anyone else and the constant unpleasant smells hadn’t really endeared it to me. Couple that with constant pain and I had a rather grim view of the city, slowing my rise from slumber this morning. Still I’m not about to waste my time over here so after spending way too much time getting ready we headed out for a really late breakfast at a nice french restaurant with an art deco finish.
We were still without a proper internet connection in our hotel room even after I had found a good plan on T-Mobile that would solve all our problems. For some reason it was refusing to tether to my laptop meaning that the lovely unlimited Internet connection I had acquired was trapped inside the confines of my iPhone. One solution was to get a wireless broadband modem that I could put my SIM card into and I saw that Office Depot stocked them. We headed over there to see if they had one but all I could find were the contract ones, leaving me to try and track one down somewhere else. We hopped over to a Radioshack to see if they had one but it was pretty much the same deal so I decided to leave it for now.
Wanting to tick off a couple of the attractions we’d bought into we had set our sites on the statue of liberty. Not wanting to trek the entire way down there on foot we tried to figure out the maze that is the New York subway system. After plotting the route on Google maps I noticed that it had a train option which did both the train transfer as well as the departure times. 20 minutes later we were at our destination and heading towards the dock that would take us out to the island. Before we could board we had to go through an airport style security scan where they announced we’d be the final boat for the day. We knew we’d taken our time getting here but we thought we’d still have some time up our sleeves, obviously not. The trip over and the island itself were pretty uneventful but it’s still immensely popular with the island teaming with people even this late in the afternoon. I got some choice photos of the monument before sitting down to enjoy the sunset on our boat ride back to Manhattan island.
By the time we got back it was almost night time so we decided to go to the Empire State Building so we could see New York City lit up at night time and get some good pictures while we were at it. It didn’t take us long to find it after exiting the metro station we came out of with the building tower over everything with its electric blue luminescence. The book had told us to come back after 9pm to beat the crowds but no less than 20 minutes later we were up at the top level. From every side of the building we could see city lights stretching out to the horizon, providing a stunning canvas for me to work my camera on.
With that out of the way we set about looking for a place to have dinner. I had found a korean barbecue place on Yelp that we started walking to but no less than 2 minutes into the walk did we find a microbrewery with an attached restaurant. The prices were good and the food sounded amazing so the estimated 15 minute wait was well within our limit. Whilst we waited I grabbed us some drinks from the bar with Rebecca selecting a long island iced tea and I grabbed one of their oatmeal stouts. It was a nice thick beer with a distinctly coffee aftertaste providing an ample distraction whilst we waited for our table. The dinner that followed was well worth it too with Rebecca getting exactly what she expected (doesn’t happen often) and I enjoying a 12 oz new york strip steak with a blue cheese dressing. Our walk back to the hotel was one of satisfaction and happiness without the pain I had suffered the day before.
I opened this post saying how I hadn’t really cared much for this city but that all changed today. Whilst anything mired in pain will always have a grim look to it today proved that there were many redeeming features for all the small bothers that got to me. Once I solve the small problem of tethering my iPhone I will have worked out all those little problems that have been gnawing at me since I landed here and hopefully I can get that done early tomorrow morning. With us mastering the subway system (thanks to Google) so much more of the city has opened up for us and I can’t wait to take advantage of it.
If there’s one notion that just doesn’t seem to die it’s that email is always a bane to someone’s productivity. Personally after using the Internet daily for the better part of 15 years I’ve gotten the whole email thing down pretty good and I don’t personally find it a distraction. Still no matter how many people I talk to they still seem to struggle with their inbox every day with people inundating them request after request or including them in a discussion that they just have to respond to. This is just one of the great many examples of people using technology to control someone else’s behaviour and it surprises me how many people still fall for it.
In the most traditional sense email was to be the electronic replacement for good old fashioned letters. In that sense they do carry a sense of urgency about them as when someone takes the time to write to you about something you can be sure that they want a response. However the low barrier to entry for writing an email as opposed to a real letter opened the floodgates for those who would not usually take the time to write and thus proceed to unleash their fury on unsuspecting victims. For myself I’ve noticed in a work place many people will often forego face to face contact with someone who’s mere meters away by using email instead, turning a 5 minute conversation into a 2 hour email ordeal that still doesn’t satisfy either party. This could also be due to my career being almost wholly contained within the public service, but I’ve seen similar behaviour at large private entities.
I think the problem many people have with electronic mediums is the urgency that they associate with it. When you get a real, physical letter from someone or some corporation there’s a real sense of “I have to do something about this” and that feeling translates into its electronic form. Seeing your inbox with dozens of emails left unread conveys that sense of leaving something important undone as each one of them is a call to your attention, begging for a response. The key is to recognise the low barrier of entry that electronic forms of communication have and to treat them as such. Of course simply ignoring your emails doesn’t solve the problem but establishing rules of engagement for people contacting you through various mediums ensures that you cut the unnecessary communications to a minimum, freeing yourself from their technological grasp.
I experienced this myself just recently when experimenting with “proper” Twitter use. The second I dropped my rules of engagement with the service was the second that I became a slave to it and the people on the other side. Sure this might be considered the norm when using Twitter but frankly the value I derive from the service is rendered moot when diverts my attention away from what I consider to be more valuable exploits. The same should be said for any form of communication you use, if the value you’re deriving or creating from using a communication method is less than the most optimal thing you could be doing in lieu of that, well maybe you should reconsider replying to those 50 emails that came in over lunch.
It’s gotten to the point where even whole companies are being founded on the idea of streamlining communication, like Xobni an email inbox searching tool. Google has also attempted to fix the email problem by developing the priority inbox which is a clever yet completely unnecessary tool. Whilst it does do a good job of showing me the emails I need to see I’d argue the problem is more that the ones it doesn’t promote simply did not need to be written. Thus we have a technological solution to a problem that’s entirely caused by its human users and would be better solved with a switch in mindset.
In the end it comes down to people letting themselves be controlled by something rather than the other way around. People know that if they want me to do something immediately they’ll come see me or phone me. If they want it done whenever I damn well feel like it they’ll send an email and no amount of important flags or all caps titles will change that. In the end it means people actually think about what they want before approaching me, meaning that the time I do actually spend communicating with them is productive and we can both get back to our priorities without too much interruption.
It just goes to show that even if you think you’ve done everything right chances are there’s something small you missed. I got home yesterday and was greeted with not only a cat who demands attention immediately (or face the wrath of his continuous antics, that should make for an interesting post in the future) but also an Internet connection that refused to play ball. Queue an hour or so of troubleshooting and swapping between modems and routers and I finally thought I had it fixed. That was until around 2:45am this morning.
Turns out my modem thought it would be a spiffing time to reboot itself. This shouldn’t of caused more then about 5 minutes of downtime. However, due to my previous tinkering, several network settings had changed and my modem was now blissfully unaware of this. Turns out saving the config on this particular router only saves it into RAM, and any reboot will kill any settings not saved in the proper way. Needless to say I’ve fixed this issue and it shouldn’t happen again…..Well not for a while at least! 🙂
I guess it’s like I’ve said before, us IT guys have the most interesting computer problems and no matter how sure we are in what we’ve done they always find a way to make us look like quite the fools. I’ll make up today’s blog post with something interesting tomorrow, I promise! 😀
It would seem as more time passes the more we are in control of the restrictions that have been placed on us by our ancestors. Natural Selection did a pretty good job of giving us a foundation of a large brain relative to our body mass, giving us a leg up on cognitive functions. Yet the more we progress we also find ourselves stuck with problems that are intrinsically human and as such will probably not be solved technologically.
The Turing test is a simple example of one such problem. In essence the test seeks to develop a computer program “intelligent” enough to fool a human observer into thinking it’s human. At its heart this is a human problem, communication with another being at a meaningful level. If you’ve ever tried to talk with a chat bot as if it were human you’ll notice some characteristics after a short period of time:
The old saying “when all you have is a hammer all your problems look like nails” is something that applies here. Using technology to solve our day to day problems and better our lives is the hammer, and our problems arising from the human condition can all look like nails. Whilst I believe that no problem is above being solved, given enough time and resources, there are some things about life that are just so intrinsically human that technology will struggle to overcome them. Sometimes it is easier to adapt ourselves to overcome such problems; akin to a kind of artificial evolution.
So, what’s the point of trying then? Well I can put it down to two reasons. The first being our insatiable desire to overcome any obstacle that is placed in front of us. Routinely in our past we humans have been faced with problems that appeared monumental. Just on 100 years ago international travel took many months across the sea and was frought with danger. Now you can walk up to almost any airport and choose a country and be there in less than a day.
Secondly, on a time scale that we experience evolution makes negligible changes to us. We are at the stage where we have evolved to a point that if we want to go any further mother nature’s course will take thousands of generations for us to get there. If the human species is to survive and thrive in this barren universe we have to learn to master the world we exist in and then continue the process throughout the solar system and beyond. This is the only way to ensure that our race can survive through catastrophic events such as the loss of the entire earth.
Overall, we seek to overcome our shortcomings due to our innate desire to thrive.